For years after Chattanooga resident Holly Bridges graduated from college, she floated in and out of jobs without finding one that provided both fulfillment and financial support.
In July 2007, Bridges was 28 and living with her parents so she could save enough money to move into a place of her own. At the time, she was working part-time as a coordinator for a foreign student exchange program. She and her parents agreed to host a student from Germany until another host family could be found. But after the girl arrived, they learned that she wouldn't be able to attend the high school closest to Bridges' parents' home.
When the high school Bridges had graduated from said it was willing to accept the exchange student, the well-meaning Bridges decided it was as good a time -- and reason -- as any to move into her own place, and picked an apartment near her alma mater.
And that's when Bridges' already-precarious finances tilted over the edge.
The Year of Living on Plastic
Bridges also had a job at a call center, but her small salaries didn't even cover her everyday expenses. For more than a year she lived on credit, putting most expenses -- including her rent -- on five credit cards until she was unable to make even the minimum monthly payments due on all of her bills.
In September 2008 Bridges hit bottom. Creditors were constantly calling. "I didn't have any money to give them, so there was no way to stop the calls," says Bridges. "The late fees were racking up and my interest rates had gone up to 30 percent. I had no hope of paying it back."
Too Poor to Qualify for Debt Management
Bridges moved back in with her parents, where the phone calls from creditors persisted. "My mom wouldn't let me declare bankruptcy," says Bridges. "Then I went to a credit counselor called CredAbility, to see if I could get some help."
At first, Bridges was turned down for the debt management program because, having quit her job at the call center, she didn't have enough income to qualify for help.
As soon as she found new employment, she was accepted into the program, where her credit counselor got all five of Bridges' creditors to reduce her interest rates, eliminate the accumulated late fees, and reduce her payments. A mandatory debt payment of $435 was automatically transferred from her bank on the 20th of each month.
"It was amazing. The minute I went on the plan, the calls from the creditors stopped," says Bridges.
Bridges was back to living rent-free with her parents, so she was able to make her payments fairly easily. But things didn't remain settled for long.
Another Bad Move
Bridge's parents moved out of state, but because Bridges had a job, she wanted to stay in Chattanooga.
"I was making about $1,200 per month and I rented a cheap, awful apartment for $350," says Bridges. "But between that and my debt payment I didn't have much to live on. I was able to get food from a food bank. I lived without cable TV, without Internet access, and had the cheapest cellphone plan possible."
After two years struggling to keep up with her bills, she decided to chart a totally new course: She became a truck driver.
Home on the Road
Bridges says she drove everywhere in the country, from Massachusetts to Los Angeles to Seattle to Florida. "It was good for me to get away from everything and to see some more of the country," she says.
The financial realities of being a long-haul truck driver were also good for her. "I lived and worked in the truck, so I didn't have any rent or utility payments," says Bridges. "My bills dropped so much that I could actually pay a little extra on my debt sometimes."
Finally, the Payoff
Bridges eventually got off the road; for the past year has been making a living selling cars. She made her last debt payment in November 2012. She was even able to pay for a trip to Germany to attend a friend's wedding.
"It hasn't even hit me yet, that I have an extra $435 every month," she says. "For the past four years I've been so scared that I might not have the money in my account, because if you miss even one payment the creditors can start calling and your interest rates go right back up."
Now Bridges has a credit card, which she acquired strictly to help her reestablish her credit, but she intends to live on cash only for the rest of her life. She plans to buy her next car -- and even, eventually, a home -- by saving rather than borrowing money.
"It's hard to live a life of sacrifice, but you have to learn to live with what you have," she says. "If you can't pay cash for something, it isn't yours."